Buni Anania Sasa took one look at the carnage — three dead innocents, a massive crater and the onset of panic and chaos — promptly rounded up his extended family of 35 and fled to the bush.
For 21 years, they dodged not only similar bombings but attacks by helicopter gunships and militia, all sent by the government in the capital Khartoum to the north. In the years that followed, they lived off this unforgiving land as best they could. They wrung meager rations of bitter wild yams from the earth. They wore tree bark for clothing and used spears and rocks to fend off hyenas and lions.
His three young sons, born in these scrublands, grew up knowing nothing of classrooms, ample food, clean water or safety.
By the time that Sudan's most recent conflagration began to approach an abeyance in 2005, 10 of Sasa's family members had died, some from disease, some to the north's military campaign.
"This was such a fierce war," said the 54-year-old Sasa, "and it has broken so many things."
In sterile terms, he describes seeing helicopter gunships spray fleeing civilians, a lion taking a friend in the bush, and his sister's decapitation from an exploding bomb.
Yet, he is prepared to see a return to war and his family's return to the bush — if that is what it will take to help this part of Sudan achieve independence.
"We don't want to go back to war," he says with a weary sigh. "But this government in the north, it will only continue to oppress us, it will only continue to make war on us. So we must have our own country."
His pessimism about the prospects of peace is not unfounded. The consensus in this part of Africa's largest nation is that Sudan again is at the precipice of war.
After two decades of civil war that cost some 2 million lives, Sudan managed to come to peace with itself in 2005 when the mainly Muslim north and predominately Christian and animist south reached an accord.
The agreement cleared the way for a unity government, semi-autonomy for the south, a combined army, voter registration and an election for national, state and county offices in 2010.
But the centerpiece of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement — which southerners are somewhat obsessed about — is a 2011 referendum on self-determination for the region.
A long history of misery
The origins of Sudan's north-south conflict go back hundreds, if not thousands, of years, with race, religion, slavery and raw power all playing a role. In the modern era, the nation fell to war as soon as the British granted independence in 1953. Since then, many here say that the off-and-on conflict has been about the south's gaining equality and putting an end to the north's oppression.
But it has not always been about secession.
John Garang, the founder of the Southern People's Liberation Movement, the predominant political party in the south and its military arm, originally agitated for a secular, socialist, unified Sudan.
Over time, however, he spoke more openly about a separate Sudan for southerners, though often in a back door kind of way.
In 2005, upon the completion of the peace accord with the north, Garang said of the referendum, "Would you like to vote to be second-class citizens in your own country? It is absolutely your choice."
Officially, government leaders from the south do not outwardly advocate secession, but they can be heard echoing Garang's well-known refrain.
Indeed, the governor of Western Equatoria State, Nunu Kumba, spoke of the importance of the democratic process and registering to vote in a speech to a packed crowd in this dusty market town not far north of the Ugandan border.
But at the end of what might be termed a non-partisan speech, she said, "You are the ones to choose to separate and you are the ones to decide if you want to remain with the Arabs.
"Let us live," she said, "in love, not under oppression."
A few miles down the road, Wilson Api, the commissioner of East Mundri District, is markedly less diplomatic about the democratic process. He claims the north, through the office of the National Electoral Commission (NEC), is purposefully making the registration process and, therefore, the referendum difficult.
Sitting in the shade of a mango tree, Api cites a litany of complaints against the northern government and the NEC, including sending outsiders to the area to oversee the process, holding registration in the wrong towns at the wrong times and, he claims, using the same flags to signal registration centers that are used to mark minefields.
"Who," he asks, " would dare enter that registration center?"
On the street, talk of secession
And then there is the on-the-street evidence, any street peddler, any low-level government official, any church figure (there are many in this part of Sudan) will tell you secession is the only way to solve Sudan's suffering. They also will express amazement that it isn't so obvious that one has to ask.
"This is a government that says we are second-class citizens," said Stephen Dokolo, an official with the Episcopal Dioceses in the southern town of Lui.
"Do you think anyone in the south wants to continue to be part of that?" he asked.
Not everyone, however, sees the situation so bleakly.
Richard Lobban, a professor of African studies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., sees signs of hope. He points to the relative stability of the regime in Khartoum and an easing of tensions in the Darfur region in the west of the country.
Lobban, who has been traveling to Sudan since 1970, also believes the referendum will come off as planned and that it probably will succeed. But, he adds, it would be a mistake to see it as a panacea of the nation's or the south's problems.
"Assuming there is a separation," he said from his office in Newport, "the people there will discover that Sudan is in the same place as before. They will have the same neighbors, the same infrastructure, they will be doing many of the same things as before, going about their lives as before. This will be a big disappointment for the southerners who expect their lives to suddenly improve, but it will be something less fearful for the north."
When the Sudanese step back from the situation, Lobban explained, and see that they are still neighbors and natural trading partners, life could very well continue for a somewhat untied Sudan in some sort of federal system, he said.
Peace, for now
These last four years have given people here a taste of peace. Although they say the inequality is still appalling and the north's history of oppression unacceptable, the current situation is better than living in the bush and dodging bomb-laden cargo planes.
Food may be in short supply, but you can find beans in the marketplace and cassava, an edible woody shrub, in the fields. The schools may be stocked with unqualified teachers (local government officials say as much), but school children in a rainbow of uniforms happily trudge daily to windowless, desk-less, book-less schools.
At least there is a sense that attempts at state-building are taking place.
If the referendum succeeds, actually constructing a state will not be that easy. The leaders and the people of a New Sudan, a Southern Sudan, still have a long row of cassava to hoe before they achieve lasting peace.
An independent South Sudan would be stuck with no tax base and little means of revenue, save oil — something that may be given up as a bargaining chip for independence. That doesn't speak to the lack of infrastructure, a non-existent health-care system and a struggling education system.
Add to that a recent crop failure that could spin into a regional cataclysm, a bizarre and lethal rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army that consistently wreaks havoc across the countryside and rising ethnic tensions between farmers and cattle herders that have already cost thousands of lives and you have the makings of a failed state.
Never mind; the people here know the odds, and they are used to the hardship — not to mention the oppression of the north.
For Buni Anania Sasa, the bad memories come easily, the struggle to keep his family alive, the conditions his small sons were born and lived in, the day-to-day fear of what might come next.
"It was," he says simply, "a hard, hard life."
But in the next breath he speaks of the north's determination to make war on the south and his determination to see an independent nation for the region, even if it means taking his family back to that hard life.
The Star accepted support for this series from Wedowee-based Four Corners Ministries — a mission group operating in southern Sudan, Uganda and other nations — with the understanding that the reporter would neither cover the work of the ministry in Sudan or anywhere else, now or in the future.
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